Why does “Elephant” have flat feet? Hardly lucid, moving at the pace of a large, lumbering animal, “Elephant” answers a question audiences never likely asked: “How do I feel about a school shooting, not if, but when it happens in my own back yard?”
“It’s more poetic interpretation than journalistic investigation,” director Gus Van Sant described his feature film “Elephant,” at a question-and-answer session precluding the film’s Portland premiere.
“As journalism becomes more entertainment,” he said, “entertainment has become journalistic stylistically.”
Portland received a sneak preview of the film October 4, two weeks ahead of New York and Los Angeles. The gala event packed the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where its teen stars bathed in the glamour of red-carpet and flash-bulbs.
The amateur cast play more as if hand-picked from outside a Meow Meow or Paris Theatre emo-core concert than an audition. Fresh and pretty, they act out painfully ordinary dialogue with zero pretention.
As teen film characters of the ’80s deemed generation X cynical and aimless, Van Sant’s cast have no qualms playing simple, self-absorbed and blissfully dumb.
Upon reflection, viewers may wonder whether they’ve been transported into the shoes of high school students via the omniscient camera angles of a low-flying god or simply taken for a ride.
“It’s bold. I’m sure it’s going to be controversial,” said Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), executive producer of the film, “It’s very clear to me that it doesn’t paint a pretty picture at all.”
“Elephant” defies convention by its blatant refusal to provoke moral judgments or, for that matter, incite any emotion. Innate reservations assure us that killing is wrong, but we’ve come to expect ethical reminders in media to reinforce that bias. Their absence here, where children casually kill children, is disorienting.
Massacring gunmen Alex and Eric embrace in the shower because, “I’ve never kissed anybody before, have you?” It won’t likely raise eyebrows any more than River and Keanu’s “My Own Private Idaho” kiss. That’s Gus for you. Their simple plan, to detonate charges at opposite ends of school, rousing fleeing classmates into their crosshairs to ensure the highest body count, is, on the other hand, nauseating.
The boy’s cat-and-mouse game unfolds over the story’s mobius-strip continuity. The script takes us forward and back in time to the onset of the carnage, introduces faces, develops no characters, and offers no motivations for their actions, except their high-five and, “Above all, let’s have fun.”
Technical prowess is apparent to aspiring filmmakers as the camera follows one pretty kid after another down neverending hallways. These meandering ten-minute strolls shot entire 1,000 ft. film magazines, which Gus meticulously edited by hand. Color and exposure corrections had to be made quickly on-the-fly as the heavy 35mm rig was carried on a steadicam. Casual moviegoers won’t care, and will find the long, fluid shots pretentious and painfully droll.
“Elephant” received acclaim at May’s Cannes Film Festival on the coattails of last year’s ovation for ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ Michael Moore’s challenge to American gun advocates was the first documentary allowed to compete for the Palm d’Or. Though it did not win, reaction indicated a readiness on the part of the international community to see the U.S. entertainment industry cast a critical eye on violence.
Van Sant holds a rare distinction, winner of this year’s Best Director award and the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes, the world’s premier film festival. That Cannes’ jury selected “Elephant” for top honors seems to have dumbfounded Van Sant as much as U.S. critics who have panned the film.
“‘Brown Bunny,’ which was sort-of a reviled film at the festival got the same reaction,” Van Sant said, referring to Vincent Gallo’s road movie, which boasts an oral sex scene with co-star Chloe Sevigny. Cannes attendees pack the 2,500 capacity, six-story Palais Theatre for twenty films in competition or special engagements, standing to applaud or boo each name as the credits roll.
This year’s panel of judges included U.S. actress Meg Ryan and independent “Sex, Lies and Videotape” director Steven Soderbergh.